JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Researchers explore the possibilities of canine-computer interactions.
May 27 2016
Anyone who has trained a dog knows the importance of speed and consistency when it comes to rewarding desired behaviors. But we're humans, and we're not perfect. Can a computer make up for our shortcomings?
North Carolina State University researchers have developed a customized suite of technologies that allows a computer to train a dog by responding to their body language.
The team designed a custom harness with built-in sensors that monitor the dog's posture and sends the information wirelessly to a computer. Then an algorithm recognizes a predetermined data pattern (for instance, the dog going from a standing to sitting position) and reinforces correct behavior by releasing dog treats from a nearby dispenser
According to computer science professor David Roberts, the computer is accurate, but it didn't come easily.
One of the challenges the researchers had to work through was the trade off between delivering reinforcement quickly and giving the algorithm enough time to ensure the behavior had been done correctly with 100 percent certainty. If the reinforcement was given immediately, there was a high rate of rewarding the wrong behavior—a dilemma us dog trainers know all too well!
To address this, the researchers worked with 16 volunteers and their dogs to optimize the algorithm, finding the best possible combination of speed and accuracy. The outcome was highly accurate, rewarding the appropriate behavior 96 percent of the time. While expert dog trainers can achieve a near 100 percent accuracy, the computer has a significant edge in time of response. Even an expert human trainer has a lot of variation in this area. The algorithm is incredibly consistent.
The researchers see endless possibilities in the area of animal-computer interaction. The next step in their work is to see how they can combine this technology with human directed training, to make us more efficient, and also apply the algorithm to training service dogs. One day they also want to explore allowing dogs to “use” computers. Imagine if a diabetic alert dog could use a trained behavior to call for help!
A computer will never replace the special bond that develops between person and dog, but it could be a very interesting tool that could help us more effectively train our pups.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Transportation hubs add pet relief areas ahead of the August deadline.
May 26 2016
Thanks to a federal regulation, all airports in the United States that service over 10,000 passengers per year will have a pet relief area in every terminal by this August. Many transportation hubs have added potty spaces in the last few years, but the looming deadline means many shiny new relief areas are popping up all over the country in 2016.
A major upgrade was recently unveiled at my local New York City airport—in John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal 4. This building already had a pre-security potty area, but this can be a logistical nightmare for dogs needing to take a quick potty break before a flight takes off. Imagine worrying about whether your pup has time for a last bathroom trip or if you'll get stuck waiting on the security line to get back to the gate. Having an area after security provides huge peace of mind for traveling pet lovers.
The new space, located between the men's and women's bathrooms near Gate B31, is behind a door marked with a pawprint. The relief area features a patch of artificial turf and a little red hydrant, as well as poop bags and a hose to aid in clean up.
Many professionals were consulted in the design, including the Guide Dog Foundation.
With an increase in traveling pets, these post-security relief areas are much needed. I hope that this is a sign that airlines are recognizing the importance of catering to animal lovers and their companions!
Dog's Life: Travel
The Avenyfamiljen group creates special entrees for their furry customers.
May 21 2016
Now that it's spring time in New York, I know I'll be seeing many dogs sitting by their families on outdoor restaurant patios. When I go with one of my pups, I'll give them a few bites from my dish or a roll from the bread basket. Many eateries welcome pets here, but only a few offer items specifically for them.
Several countries outside of the United States allow restaurants to be even more pet friendly, letting them welcome dogs inside. The law in Sweden has allowed eateries to choose if they'd like to welcome dogs since they joined the European Union in 1995. Avenyfamiljen, a restaurant group in Gothenburg, Sweden, has taken advantage of that law for a long time now, believing that it's natural to have dogs around and adds to the atmosphere of the space. But they've recently decided to take it to the next level by giving furry guests their very own menu.
Avenyfamiljen's assistant manager, Tobias Hamberg, says that bringing your dog to a restaurant in Sweden can still be a controversial matter. "Most people appreciate if the dog gets a bowl of water or simply an entrance." Avenyfamiljen wanted their restaurants to be even more dog friendly by creating a special canine menu. Dogs can choose from main courses such as beef and cod.
For those of you who won't be getting to Sweden anytime soon with your pups, Taverna Averna, one of Avenyfamiljen's restaurants, has offered the following recipe for you to recreate their menu at home:
Mix the following ingredients and garnish with chopped nettles.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study shows the importance of the human canine bond.
May 18 2016
Dog lovers well know the importance of the human canine bond, but continued studies in this area are important for providing data that supports pet friendly privileges and legislation.
Researchers at the University of Missouri recently completed a study that showed evidence for the association between dog walking and physical health in senior adults by analyzing data from the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration's Health and Retirement. The research included data about human-animal interactions, physical activity, frequency of doctor visits, and health outcomes.
They found that dog ownership and walking were related to increases in physical health. The researchers also looked at how strong the bond was between people and their pups. Those with stronger bonds were more likely to walk their dogs, and spend more time doing so, than those with weaker bonds. Pet walking provided a means to socialize with other people as well.
Rebecca Johnson, a professor and director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at MU believes that “these results can provide the basis for medical professionals to recommend pet ownership for older adults and can be translated into reduced health care expenditures for the aging population.”
Having known more than a couple people who have struggled to find or maintain housing because of their beloved pets, I know this struggle can be even more challenging for older adults who may have less options. I hope that this study will encourage more apartments and retirement communities to adopt pet friendly policies.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
These pups support their people on and off the 'field.'
May 15 2016
Earlier this month, the second Invictus Games began in Orlando, Florida, an international event where wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and veterans compete in various sports. The Games were created two years ago by Britain's Prince Harry and was named after the Latin word for “Unconquered, Undefeated.”
Many of the athletes can be seen at the Games with service dogs by their side, during practice, competitions, and medal ceremonies. They are as much a part of the event as their human counterparts.
Retired Special Operations Command Sergeant Leonard Anderson says that he might not be alive today if it weren't for his service pup, Azza, a sentiment echoed by many of the athletes with service dogs. “Everything I do, everything I've ever competed in, everything ever since the injury has mostly been with her,” he says. Azza and Leonard were together when they were stuck by an IED almost four years ago in Afghanistan. They're both retired now, but have stayed together to support each other.
Other competitors are accompanied by dogs who came into their lives after their injury. Air Force Sergeant August O'Neill shattered his femur and right tibia after he sustained gunshot wounds to both legs more than three years ago. 20 surgeries later, August decided to amputate his left leg. His service dog, Kai, provides bracing support when he's fatigued.
During the Games' opening ceremony, August propelled down from a Black Hawk helicopter to where Kai was waiting. Kai also stays courtside as August competes in volleyball, just in case he needs help. “Kai is my best friend,” August says. “He's been with me through the toughest times, and the best of times.”
Although the dogs aren't directly involved in the sports, the athletes see their wins as victories for the pups too.
“When I win a medal or two, it's her earning it too,” says Leonard. During this year's games, he won the gold medal for the 100-meter freestyle and was joined on the podium by Azza.
It's inspiring to see these teams work together to not only survive, but to excel on a global stage.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Service dogs' faithfulness can also make them vulnerable.
May 12 2016
Service dogs spend their days dedicated to their people, so intensely focused on their every need. This faithfulness also makes them especially vulnerable.
A study recently published in the journal Veterinary Record found that the number of reported dog attacks on guide dogs in the United Kingdom has risen significantly in the past few years. A total of 629 attacks were reported between 2010 and 2015, an increase from an average of three per month in 2010 to eleven attacks per month in 2015.
The study was a collaboration between researchers from the Guide Dogs charity and the University of Nottingham. They aren't sure if the numbers reflect higher levels of reporting or an actual trend, but nonetheless they want to better understand the problem.
55 percent of the victim dogs were officially working in their harnesses when attacked, but the incidents weren't always unprovoked.
More than a quarter of the attacks were attributed to a lack of control, even though both owners were present in 77 percent of the incidents. This led researchers to believe that many of the attacks could've been prevented if the aggressor dog was put on leash when the owner saw the guide dog in their working harness. While the causes and circumstances of the attacks varied, this seems like a simple solution.
As you can imagine these attacks have a significant effect on the guide dogs and those who rely on them for mobility and independence. Over 40 percent of the attacked pups experienced a negative impact on working ability. And 70 percent of the dog handlers reported an affect on their emotional well being.
In 2014, attacks on guide dogs became an aggravated offense in the U.K., punishable with sentences of up to three years for the attacking dog's owner. Between this new law and awareness, the Guide Dogs and the University of Nottingham hope the numbers will begin to swing in the opposite direction.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
WestJet allows dogs to sit in the cabin while transporting displaced Fort McMurray residents.
May 7 2016
As wildfires spread in Fort McMurray, Canada, about 88,000 people have left the area after a mandatory evacuation. Calgary based airline WestJet played a key role in getting evacuees out of the oil sands community, running about 70 flights in and out over the last two days. Their participation is part of an existing relationship with Suncor and Shell, so it had the benefit of being privately funded (as opposed to other aspects of the evacuation). These flights have been particularly unique, not only because of the circumstances, but because of the canine passengers. Many of the evacuees left so quickly they didn't bring a kennel for their pups, meaning most four legged passengers couldn't fly in cargo. So WestJet allowed people to travel with their dogs sitting on the floor next to their seat.
Evacuees posted photos of their flying pups on Instagram, and it seems like, despite the cramped conditions, all of the dogs managed to get along. I'm sure having these pups in the cabin was comforting to the many stressed passengers. All of their possessions may be gone, but at least they had their entire family with them--both human and canine.
Not all dogs were as lucky as the WestJet canines. Some pets were stuck at home as their owners were out of town when the evacuation order was put in place or at work while roads were closed off. McMurray Fire Emergency Animal Assistance set up an online form for people to report stranded pets, but there aren't any official rescue plans in place yet. Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society is coordinating grassroots rescue efforts. To help out, visit their Facebook page.
It seems after every disaster we say there needs to be better planning that involves pets. We know that people will refuse to evacuate or move into a shelter without their pets, so it's extremely important that we put this type of support in place.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study finds both benefits and challenges for homeless youth and their dogs.
May 4 2016
There's no question that having a dog in your life has many benefits. And it's been confirmed again in a new study that looked at homeless youth and their pets. Researchers from Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) found that young people with animals are less likely to engage in potentially harmful behavior, like alcohol abuse and hard drug use, because they don't want to be separated from their pets. They were also less likely to be depressed than their counterparts without animals.
But what was really interesting was that the researchers found many youth are extremely open to discussing their struggles and issues with veterinarians. This is an important connection considering many of them have lost trust in people. I think the unconditional love they've gotten through their pets helps make this relationship possible.
However, amid the benefits, there are also struggles associated with having a pet while homeless. Many shelters don't allow pets, so these people may be limited in where they can sleep. Avoiding homeless shelters also means less access healthcare and addiction treatment services.
Michelle Lem the lead researcher and founder of Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO), a volunteer group providing mobile veterinary services to homeless people in Canada, hopes that this study will highlight the need for pet friendly homeless shelters and show the value pets bring to these marginalized groups.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Supreme Court of Georgia will soon decide if pets are worth more than their 'market value."
April 29 2016
Our pets are cherished family members who share our bed, accompany us on walks, and cheer us up when we're sad. But in the eyes of the law, animals are pretty much considered property. This distinction will soon be up for debate in Georgia.
Back in 2012, Bob and Elizabeth Monyak boarded their two dogs at Atlanta kennel Barking Hound Village while they were on a family vacation in France. When the Monyaks dropped the pups off, they gave special instructions to give Rimadyl to their Labrador Retriever, Callie, for her arthritis. But when they picked the dogs up, it seemed like something went wrong. Their Dachshund mix, Lola, had no appetite and started trembling the next day.
When they took Lola to the veterinarian, she was diagnosed with renal failure, which the vet believed was consistent with an overdose of Rimadyl. Lola received countless treatments from veterinarians in Georgia and Florida, but sadly Lola passed away nine months later.
The Monyaks sued the kennel, accusing them of giving Callie's medication to Lola. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of Georgia, but the case in question was not whether the kennel caused Lola's death, but what damages the Monyaks are owed, if any.
Barking Hound Village argues that Lola is considered property and that the Monyaks are entitled only to her "market value." Since Lola was adopted, they allege the family is owned nothing. However, the Monyaks want to recover the $67,000 in veterinary expenses they spent on her care. In addition, they also want a jury to be able to consider the emotional value tied to Lola. The little pup was a part of their family for eight years and loosing her, especially under these circumstances, was heartbreaking.
But there's not much precedent for awarding Monyak what they're asking for. David Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University, says that when it comes to damages for the death of a pet, state supreme courts have usually knocked down trial and appellate court decisions tied to emotional or "non-economic" damages. It's not unusual to get some compensation for veterinary costs, but $67,000 is a stretch.
The tide could be changing, but not very fast. In a few states, legislation has given the green light for some recoverable damages. For instance, in Tennessee, people can recover up to $5,000 "for the loss of the reasonable expected society, companionship, love and affection of the pet." David also notes that people can now create trust provisions for their pets, which is an acknowledgement that they aren't the same kind of property as a random object.
But it's also more complicated than it looks on the surface. The American Veterinary Medical Association is not in favor of the Monyaks receiving emotional damages because they believe a ruling in their favor could lead to increase liability for people who care and treat pets. Also, these situations would benefit the wealthy, since they tend to spend more on pet care (though this is not totally true, I have friends who have risked all of their savings to provide care for a sick dog.)
I think Bob Monyak makes a very good rebuttal. He says that "the amount people spend on pets would be irrational if they didn't have a value greater than their market value. No one would spent $1,000 to fix a $10 toaster."
While Barking Hound Village's lawyer, Joel McKie, believes that Lola "has no special training or unique characteristics, other than that of a 'family dog,'" I think we can all agree that a family dog, even one adopted for free, is far from worthless. When I think of my own pups, I know that their value is immeasurable.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
More companies are providing time off for new U.K. pet parents.
April 26 2016
A new benefit is joining maternity and paternity leave, and it has to do with kids of the four legged variety.
According to pet insurance provider, Petplan, nearly one in 20 new pet owners in the United Kingdom have been offered time off to care for furry family members. Dubbed pawternity leave, this perk ranges from a few hours to up to three weeks of paid time off.
Mars Petcare was one of the first companies to institute a formal policy, which allows employees 10 hours of paid leave when adding a new pet to the family. This allows people to take their pups to a training class or veterinary appointment, or just spend quality time creating a bond. Mars also has a pet friendly office where employees can bring dogs to work, so they clearly already have a progressive attitude in this area.
But it's not only animal related companies who've added this benefit. Manchester based IT company BitSol Solutions gives a generous three weeks paid leave when a pet joins the family. Company owner Greg Buchanan was inspired to put the policy in place after his partner Steph took nine months off work to settle the couple's own dogs. They don't have any human kids of their own, so their pups are their children. This has given Greg a deep understanding of the importance of animals and having the time to develop a solid relationship. Greg believes being flexible with his staff when it comes to their pets makes them loyal and hardworking.
We don't have mandatory paid maternity or paternity leave in the United States, so it may be harder for pawternity leave to catch on here. In the past, I've used vacation days when a new pet joined my family. But it would certainly be cool to have official paid leave time!
We are pleased to note that there are a handful of US companies who offer employee-pet benefits, including Rover who provides paid bereavement leave for employees for the passing of their beloved pet. Now What offers workers "pupternity leave"— one day PTP if getting a new dog. Bomber Industries provides employees time off to deal with pets who are sick.
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